Cooking up opportunity in the heart of Gillette, Wyoming

Wyoming’s Rib & Chop House goes with new Gillette, Wyoming location

Originally published in the January 2017 Wyoming Business Report.

By Jeff Truchot

GILLETTE – It’s midafternoon on the day before New Year’s Eve and Preston Chaisson has a full plate in front of him.

Figuratively, that is.

Instead of getting ready to dig into a platter of his restaurant’s signature Louisiana-style “Fulton Street” baby back barbecue pork ribs, Chaisson — general manager of the Gillette location of Wyoming’s Rib & Chop House — is carving out a few minutes between a busy Friday lunch rush and a packed slate of dinner reservations to talk to the Wyoming Business Report about the enthusiastic reception the new restaurant has received and the successful business model that has the chain poised to cook up more good things in the future.

Tomorrow is going to be huge for the restaurant. The Rib & Chop House is booked solid for its New Year’s celebration and, along with all his usual managerial duties, Chaisson will also be tasked with babysitting a “risk” of live 2-pound Maine lobsters (a group of lobsters is called a risk, by the way) that will be one of the night’s “special occasion” specials. (King crab legs, Kobe beef, New York strip steaks and seabass served with butternut squash, Brussels sprouts, pomegranates, and brown butter balsamic sauce were also to be on the menu that night.)

A Louisiana native, Chaisson might even try to sneak away to the bar area for a few moments to watch his beloved Louisiana State Tigers take on Louisville in the Citrus Bowl on one of the restaurant’s many big-screen TVs. (For the record, LSU pulled off a 29-9 upset over the Cardinals in the game.)

“We are expecting a big, big crowd for tomorrow,” Chaisson said. “It should be exciting.”

Adding that his staff should be well-prepared to get slammed on New Year’s Eve, since the restaurant has been a busy hotspot since it first opened its doors in the former Jordan’s Western Dining location on South Douglas Highway on November 15.

“The reception we’ve had has been wonderful,” Chaisson said. “The town has welcomed us with open arms. We’ve had an incredible response, both in bringing in great employees and building our customer base.”

With the downturn in the state’s energy-based economy, which probably hit Gillette harder than any other town in the state, what with the mass layoffs that hit the surrounding Powder River Basin’s coal mines earlier this year, one might question the timing of opening a business in the city — and especially a new restaurant, what with the industry notorious for its almost 60-percent, first-year failure rate.

But Chaisson and Rib & Chop House founder Burke Moran — who is also the chain’s principal owner (along with his wife, Melissa) — didn’t see it as a risk, instead they saw it as an opportunity to bring their brand of “Rocky Mountain Hospitality” to a market almost perfectly tailored to the chain’s self-styled philosophy of “Bringing great restaurants to exceptional small towns.”

And, as fate would have it, the logistics behind opening the new location likely wouldn’t have been workable a few years ago when the state’s energy economy was in full-boom mode.

“We were attracted to Gillette because of all the things that make Wyoming attractive,” Chaisson said. “The people and the outdoors and the wildlife …”

“And Gillette’s the third-biggest city in the state and there is a lot of industry here. The town has a feel that is what a ‘chop house’ town should feel like. It’s full of good, hard-working folks, who aren’t pretentious and who want a good meal at a fair price. And that’s what our concept does.”

Chaisson said that, if anything, the timing behind the opening of the Gillette store actually benefitted from the slowdown of the local economy.

“Three, four, five years ago, it would have been impossible to secure a building here like the one we moved into,” he said. “Every place in town was taken and all the restaurants were busy and making money.

“And when the chance came up here this year, we weren’t scared at all by the perception that some people had that Gillette was on its way out. We never got that sense that it was a dying town. Sure, coal and the oil and gas industry took a hit, but it’s not like 35,000 people just up and left town.”

Chaisson said that even this summer, when he was in town putting things in place to open the Gillette location, the town was still vibrant and the local eateries were always busy.

“Gillette is a town that likes to eat out; it has more of a younger median age bracket than other places,” he said. “And the locals have been patronizing us well since we’ve been open.”

Chaisson said the plan to open the Gillette store came together quickly earlier this year. After Jordan’s announced that it would be closing before the start of summer season, local developer and realtor Bruce Schilling (who owns the building that the restaurant occupies) went looking for a new occupant, targeting the Rib & Chop House as a potentially ideal tenant. The location was also good fit for the chain, too.

“We got a Grade A-plus, plus building,” Chaisson said. “They really did this building right. Four times we looked at changing the feel of the place, but we couldn’t find much we didn’t already like.” He said they added a few more TVs and new beer taps in the bar and installed a new char-broiler in the kitchen (which sears steaks to perfection at a whopping 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit), but the rest of the décor remained pretty much the same.

Chaisson said he thought the Gillette restaurant did get a boost from the fact that the chain’s brand was familiar with local eaters, owing to the fact that nearby Sheridan — Gillette’s friendly rival city — has long been home to its own Rib & Chop House location. (In fact, Sheridan was the first place the Morans and Chaisson expanded to after opening the chain’s flagship store in Livingston, Mont., in 2001.) “In Gillette, everybody knew about us and they knew what to expect when we got here,” he said.

That stands in marked contrast to when the chain expanded into the competitive Cheyenne market a few years ago, where Chaisson said the downtown Wyoming’s Rib & Chop House location had to battle for customers with an array of established local eateries and national franchise restaurants — like Steamboat’s Steak and Smokehouse, Outback Steakhouse and Texas Roadhouse.

“We had to win over the people of Cheyenne,” said Chaisson, who is also a minority owner of the chain’s Capital City location. “And we did. In a way, Cheyenne has a lot of the same feeling as Gillette has. Lots or good, hard-working folks who want a good steak and maybe some fresh seafood at a reasonable price.”

“I feel like that, while we are certainly not solving all the world’s problems, we do have a firm foot in the industry, we have some great people working for us and we like to give back to the communities we are in.” – Preston Chiasson, Wyoming’s Rib & Chop House – Gillette general manager

A 30-year veteran of the food industry, Chaisson began his career working in the Sonic drive-in chain in his hometown of Baton Rouge before going to work with Bruce Moran at the city’s legendary TJ’s Ribs restaurant. After the Morans decided to make the move to Montana in 2000, Chaisson followed a couple of years later, helping the Rib & Chop House brand expand to its current 11 restaurants (along with Wyoming and Montana, the chain also boasts locations in Utah, as well) . He is currently owner of the chain’s other Wyoming location in Cody — which celebrated its 14-year anniversary last year — and even owned the Sheridan store for a few years before selling his interest back to the Morans.

Make that 11 locations “and growing” as the chain will open a Rib & Chop House in Salt Lake City later this month, with another site in Butte, Mont., being readied for a late-March debut. Other stores are likely to follow, although Chaisson was reluctant to share more since, in some cases, negotiations currently “may be in the works.”

“Have some pretty good plans in the works for the next two years, or so,” he said. “We are definitely in a growth mode right now.

“I feel like that, while we are certainly not solving all the world’s problems, we do have a firm foot in the industry, we have some great people working for us and we like to give back to the communities we are in. And the home office in Bozeman (Mont.) helps us all stay where we are supposed to be and keeps us focused. The people running things are all operators by trade, people who understand the business and who know how to do things right — our CFO started out as a chef, for example.”

And according to Chaisson, all of that has the “engine” behind the Rib & Chop House brand ready and “sitting at the right place, at the right time” for continued growth and success.

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